Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Great White Whale: The Grave of Herman Melville

If I wasn't Herman Melville, I was at least, by God, his ouija board, and he was moving my planchette. Or his literary force, compressed all these months, was spouting out of my fingertips as if I had turned on all faucets. I mumbled and muttered and mourned and yelled through the morning, all through noontime, and leaning into my usual nap time. But there was no tiredness, only the fierce and steady and joyful and triumphant banging away at my machine with the pages littering the floor and Ahab crying destruction over the right shoulder and old Herman bawling destruction over the left.     
                                                                       -- Ray Bradbury

I'd been to the grave of Herman Melville twice before, and neither time yielded any decent photos. He's buried underneath a rotting Oak tree, and I always seemed to get there when the Sun was behind his stone, which makes it very difficult to pick up the carved letters. What's worse, the edges of those letters are covered with a hint of moss, just enough to take away the shadows that make for an easily readable photograph.

For my third attempt, I brought along a friend, Sarah Lawrence MFAer Polly Bresnick. From what I could gather from our conversations, she is pretty deep into Melville, as is her father. I hope she enjoyed the experience as much as I did. I'm not sure, but I think this time the photos of Herman came out alright...

I was reading up on Melville, and the thing that struck me most was the obituary printed in the New York Times a few days after his death. Initially the only mention of his death was the day after he died, in the daily list of New Yorkers who had passed on along with him on Monday September 28,  all the other faceless names of the big city. On that Friday, the Times ran a longer piece, about a column in length, mentioning that a formerly popular writer had quietly slipped away in his old age. The piece begins:

There has died an been buried, in this city, during the current week, at an advanced age, a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life, that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines...

Herman Melville wasn't even afforded a proper obituary, but sort of a post-obit obituary, a recap of what someone else had written. And even then, the piece doesn't even recall the name Moby Dick, but focuses instead on Herman's better selling works like Typee. I had often thought about the idea that Melville had been forgotten in his day, but this article somehow drove the point home, nailed it to the mast. To say that he had been a writer of minor note half a decade before his death, and he died with no one taking any notice as almost to make the point further that he had been mediocre at best and was gone.

And it also begs the question: If Melville disappeared between 1851 and 1920, who else might be out there in the ether, waiting for their turn to be discovered?

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